Old Game, New Players

Part Two: Delicate Times

Captains' Log, StarDate (WITHHELD BY ORDER OF SECTION 9): The rapid pace of recent events has left me with little time to assess our situation and decide next steps. We are clearly lacking a great deal of information regarding this sector. The individual calling himself 'the Major' may provide more, though if my suspicions regarding his origins are correct, he will tell us much less than he knows. On the other hand, our recent experience with Mr Morden does not incline me to be trusting.

The 'object' that had appeared in Astrometrics was a cylinder approximately two metres in diameter and three metres high. As Picard, Worf and Data approached it, a section of it moved back a few centimetres, then slid aside. The stocky form of the Major stepped out. He had added some form of lightweight body armour to the coverall, and a heavy pistol hung at his hip, there was a device on this left wrist that struck Picard as vaguely familiar. The Major greeted them with a nod.

"Gentlemen." He said.

"As I suspected." Picard told him. "That is a TARDIS and you are a TimeLord, correct?"

The Major shook his head."No." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "That's a SIDRAT and I'm a WarLord. You're not off to a very good start, Captain. Can we go somewhere else? Only if I'm going to have to educate you, a cup of tea and a biscuit is the least I can expect in return!"

As they headed to the Conference Room, Data Said. "Major, we are aware that TARDIS stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space, may I ask what SIDRAT stands for, since it is also clearly an acronym of some kind?"

The Major looked him up and down. "Soong-type android." He noted. "Inquisitive to the point of downright nosiness. Still, you asked more politely than Spock did. SIDRAT stands for

Support, Intelligence, Defence, Reconnaissance And Tactics."

"A TARDIS craft configured for military operations." Worf noted. "So a WarLord is a TimeLord trained as a warrior?"

"You're brighter than you look." The Major allowed. "That goes for most Klingons, mind. But you haven't got it quite right. We are Gallifreyan, originally, but we were never TimeLords. Long story, not quite relevant."

"I will decide what is relevant." Picard told him. "My experience of Ambassador Spock is that he is a man of great courtesy."

"He was younger when I met him." The Major replied. "And he'd spent far too much time with Kirk!"

"Admiral Kirk is a highly-respected figure in Federation history." Picard said.

"That's as may be." The Major snorted. "But as far as I could tell, he had his head so far up his arse he had to use his belly-button as a peep-hole! The man was a self-righteous cowboy, an adrenalin-junkie and occasionally an outright thug! Believe me, Captain Picard, the Federation, and StarFleet, survived in spite of men like Kirk, not because of them.

"But I'm not here to talk about history. Well, not your history anyway. Tea - PG Tips, in a mug. Milk no sugar and if your replicator can run to chocolate digestives, you'll increase your approval rating by about thirty per cent!"

He sat down, took a mouthful of tea, nodded, then activated the device on his wrist. A green holographic interface opened up, which the Major proceeded to study briefly.

"Is that an omni-tool?" Picard asked.

The Major glanced up. "You have been around a bit, haven't you?" He remarked. "We call this a 'Pi' -Personal Interface - it does most of what an omni-tool does, and a few other things. Some people - mentioning no names - prefer sonic screwdrivers, but I like this tech.

"So, Sovereign-class vessel, NCC1701-E, usual array of torpedoes, phasers, Cochrane Warp Drive, blah, blah, etcetera.

"So, what are you doing here, Captain Picard?"

"I was about to ask you the same, Major." Picard replied. "Please understand my situation. Our databases contain a great deal of information regarding TimeLords, specifically the Doctor and the Master. I have even met the Doctor. But we have no mention of WarLords except for one short entry in UNIT files which classes your people as potentially dangerous.

"You will appreciate my reluctance to reveal too many details without clear knowledge as to your intentions. We have already been misled by someone professing to have our interests at heart today."

"You're learning." The Major replied. "Short version, then. WarLords are in the business of conflict resolution. We do this by providing support, advice and where necessary, extra firepower. We usually help the weaker side in any given fight, and always the most socially or ethically progressive. We don't help empire-builders, megalomaniacs, people who intend genocide or people who can handle it themselves. We're mercenaries; we charge a flat rate of one hot meal per day of service. We do that because we burn up calories fast, so I hope your catering is up to scratch!

"The WarLords in the UNIT report were actually a gang of Humans. The only one of our people involved was some idiot who called himself the War Chief. I suppose he was our equivalent of the Master, a renegade. They caused a bit of trouble until the TimeLords shut them down."

"You did not deal with the renegade yourselves?" Worf asked.

The Major shrugged. "Nobody hired us to. No point having rules if you don't stick to them. We did break the rules once -little thing called the Time War - and the upshot of that was that I'm the only one of my people left.

"Now, I came here because I detected a StarFleet ship in combat with Shadow ships. That's a potential lead-in to any number of very nasty scenarios. I'm no TimeLord to know a fixed point when I see one, but I can sense a flash-point a light-year off. There's a lot of stuff going on in this sector you don't know about, which is a shame because - unlike the Delta and Gamma Quadrants - this is your own bloody back yard!

"Now I can advise, and help -for the usual fee -but I need to know why you're here and what happened before you got into all that trouble. So I suggest you leave me to finish my tea and biccies while you toddle off into that break-out room, discuss Dr Crushers' findings - yes I did detect her scan - and decide what to do about me. If self-preservation is an instinct you possess, I suggest you decide quickly!"

-XXXX-

Everybody had been listening, of course, and everyone was patched into the break-out room.

"Beverley, your report?" Picard asked.

"His physiology and DNA match what we know of TimeLords, Jean-Luc." Dr Crusher replied. "The Major is definitely the same species as the Doctor. But there are significant differences. Gallifreyan physiology is robust to begin with, but the Majors' skeleton and musculature show the results of several generations spent in a heavy-planet environment. He's likely to be immensely strong and fast. His brain development indicates a very high level of intelligence.

"His entire body is swimming with nanoprobes. I've sent what we could see to Datas' PADD, we don't have the skills to analyse them here."

"Nanoprobes?" Riker said. "Is he Borg?"

"Negative, Commander." Data answered. "The nanotechnology here is far more advanced than anything the Borg could create. The system is also entirely self-contained. The nanoprobes are unable to communicate with any external system and are mapped to the Majors' specific DNA. Placed in any other life-form, they would immediately deactivate and break down.

"Their prime function appears to be to enhance healing and sensory abilities. There are other functions present, but I would need to study those in more detail."

"Do so." Picard told him. "Counsellor?"

"He's like the Doctor, Captain." Troi told him. "He seems to have some kind of mental shield in place. Not to protect himself, but to protect anyone trying to read him too deeply.

"From what I can sense, he's honest, worried, annoyed and impatient. He's a grouch, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly."

"Thank you." Picard said. "Mr LaForge, what do you make of this SIDRAT vehicle?"

"Not much, Captain." Geordi admitted. "It's got some heavy shielding. All I can say is that the outer hull seems to be made from adamantium, that the power readings are off of all our scales, and that nobody in there - if there is anyone else - has tried to scan any of our systems or interface with our computers."

"I thought adamantium was a myth, that it never really existed?" Troi said.

"Oh, it did!" Surprisingly, it was Beverley who replied. "It was developed in the 20th Century by a Dr Henry Pym, and was used in some very unethical experiments on Humans. But the formula was lost during World War Three and nobody has been able to make it since. Possibly because it was very costly and could only be made in small quantities, or because it required materials that couldn't be obtained any more."

"If you say so, Doc," Geordi replied, "but I'd sure like to be able to fully analyse that hull!"

"That's not a priority, Geordi." Picard pointed out. "Question; does the Major present a threat? Mr Worf?"

"I do not believe so, Captain." Worf allowed. "His actions indicate a wish to either assist us or remove us from an ongoing conflict. His ship is clearly powerful enough to destroy the Enterprise easily, and he obviously knows a great deal about StarFleet and the Federation already, so it is unlikely that he is seeking intelligence on us.

"The fact that, unlike Morden, he has not attempted to ingratiate himself with us implies that he has no agenda beyond what he has told us."

"Bad manners make him trustworthy?" Riker asked. "That's a new way of looking at it!"

"The Majors' manners are not bad, by Klingon standards, and he has made us no offers beyond his time and assistance." Worf replied. "Morden, on the other hand, offered an alliance with his 'associates', which made me suspicious of him at once."

"Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes." Picard said. "I fear the Greeks, even when they bear gifts."

"Precisely." Worf agreed. "Though in the original Klingon, the quote refers to Romulans."

"Quite." Picard said. "Number One?"

"I'm inclined to agree with Worf and Deanna." Riker replied. "The Major may have his own agenda, but I don't think it involves any harm to us. That may change, but I'd guess that would depend on us more than him. He seems to have some kind of code, and if we violate that, he could abandon us or turn on us. We need to be careful, and we need to be honest."

-XXXX-

On their return to the Conference Room, Picard, Worf and Data found the Major leaning back in his char with his eyes closed. Picard cleared his throat, and the Major opened his eyes and sat up.

"I apologise for interrupting your meditation." Picard said.

"I wasn't meditating, I was dozing." The Major told him. "Code of the Grunt. I take it you've decided?"

"Indeed, Major." Picard replied. "We have decided that, for the moment at least, our best plan is to be open with each other."

The Captain proceeded to relate the circumstances which had led up to the current situation. The Major listened intently, then nodded.

"Right!" He declared. "It isn't as bad as I'd feared, but it isn't good, either. You've been noticed. Not only that, but there's been direct intervention. Is Morden still alive?"

"We have him in the brig." Worf reported. "Is he still a threat?"

"Not now you've taken his bodyguard out." The Major assured him. "He's a Psyker, like your Counsellor, but he hasn't enough range to reach his 'associates' from inside a security field. I'd advise you to toss him out of the nearest airlock on general principles, though. The man is an irredeemable slime-ball, I've already killed him twice!"

"Once would be enough for most people." Picard remarked.

"True, but Morden is a clone, like the Vorta." The Major said. "Only not, because there's only ever one Morden at a time, and he's the only one they have.

"But I'm getting ahead of myself. OK, this sector has four warp-capable races, all of whom discovered the drive shortly after Humans did. Now, the Centauri are currently at war with the Narn, and that doesn't concern us because it's all happening on the far side of Minbari space.

"The Minbari, however, have been at war with another race called the Drakh for around a hundred years, now."

"Nobody has attempted to make peace?" Picard asked. "And neither side has managed a victory?"

"Yes and no." The Major replied. "The Minbari have tried on numerous occasions to open communications with the Drakh, but they refuse to respond -don't even acknowledge. It takes two to tango, so there's never been a hope of that working.

"As to one side definitively beating the other, that's the weird part. There's been a couple of times when the Drakh have had the Minbari on the ropes, so to speak, then suddenly withdrawn. They've waited for the Minbari to build up their strength, then started the fight again. On the other hand, the Minbari have been close to beating the Drakh a couple of times. But each time that happened, immensely powerful ships of unknown origin suddenly appeared and wiped out huge chunks of the Minbari forces. The Minbari had to retreat, and a few years later, back came the Drakh."

"It appears," Worf mused, "that someone or something appears to want to keep the war going, rather than reach a conclusion."

"Give the Klingon a cigar!" The Major said. "Or a plate of gagh, whatever.

"The ship that attacked you belongs to a First One race who call themselves the Shadows. In brief, the Shadows believe in chaos and conflict as the natural and proper state of life. To that end, they influence races, through agents like Morden, to embrace an aggressive, warlike culture and to engage in combat with any and all other races."

"I have two questions." Picard said. "Firstly, why do these Shadows not prosecute their own wars? Secondly, who or what are the First Ones?"

"First, the Shadows aren't the Daleks." The Major said. "I don't know how much you know or remember about the Daleks, but they just wanted to exterminate every non-Dalek life-form. The Shadows want other life-forms alive, so they can fight each other. They themselves are so powerful that most other races couldn't even try to fight them. You saw that dreadnought -it would have sliced the Enterprise up like salami if you'd stopped for a moment!

"Second, the First Ones are a group of five races that are older than any others in the Multiverse. You know what the Multiverse is, yes?"

"We do." Data supplied. "We once found ourselves in another Universe, where we encountered the Doctor. He told us that not all Universes are as durable as ours, some are fragile by comparison."

"He would." The Major snorted. "Rule Number One: the Doctor lies. That applies to all versions of him, or her! That was one of the Dark Energy, Mass Effect versions, yes? Explains why the Captain here called my Pi an omni-tool. You meet somebody called Shepard? Thought so, he's as much of an arse as Kirk -fate forbid those two ever join up -total mayhem!

"All Universes are equally stable, but telling conscientious StarFleet crews that their presence might be destructive is a very good way to get them to break their necks getting home!

"At any rate, every single Universe has a version of four First One races; the Q, the TimeLords, the Shadows and the Vorlons. The fifth race varies from Universe to Universe. In this one you have the Travellers, in others you get the Leviathan, or the Nephilim, or the Arisians, all sorts.

"Also, in all Universes, the Shadows have an opponent, the Vorlons, who believe in peace and order, and are willing to wipe out entire races to get it. It's an old game, both races have to play through proxies because if they don't, if they confront each other directly or ally openly with their agents, the Q will know about it and...deal with them. You don't want to know how that finishes!"

"We have had dealings with the Q." Picard said. "We can guess."

"Fair enough." The Major said. "What I can't tell you, because I don't know, is why the Shadows seem so anxious to set the Federation and the Minbari at each other's throats. But rest assured, they don't have your best interests at heart!

"So my suggestion is that we carry on into the sector, and try to make peaceful contact with the Minbari. If we can stop the conflict before it starts, and you lot can get back where you came from, we might be in with a chance!"

-XXXX-

It seemed, however, that matters were not going to be so simple.

"Captain!" Worf announced. "We are receiving a distress call!"

"Put it through." Picard ordered.

The voice was urgent, but not panicked. "Calling any ship in the vicinity. This is Captain Rohal of the ship Children of Valenn. We have been ambushed by Drakh ships. Our warp drive is offline and we are under heavy fire. We cannot hold out for long. Request assistance!"

To Picards' questioning glance, Riker said. "They're warp-capable, so the Prime Directive doesn't apply. Regulations require us to answer any distress call, but potential combat is at Captains' discretion."

"It is possible that the appearance of the Enterprise might suffice to discourage these Drakh." Worf suggested.

"No chance!" The Major snorted. "If the Drakh see you, they'll attack. It's what they do."

"Your opinion, Major?" Picard asked.

The Major shrugged. "Help the Minbari. If that ship's name is anything to go by, it's a Religious Caste one. They'll have reasonable defences, but it isn't a warship, so they won't last long against a determined attack. On the other hand, if you want to make meaningful contact with the Minbari, then the Religious Caste is the best place to start."

"And helping them out will count in our favour." Riker pointed out.

Picard came to a decision. "Ensign Hashak, take us to the source of the distress call. Mr Worf, go to battle stations. Open hailing frequencies.

"Children of Valenn, this is the Federation Starship Enterprise, we will be with you shortly!"

Rohal replied promptly. "Acknowledged and thank you."

"I'd better get to my ship." The Major said. "The Drakh use tactical fighters and combat corvettes. I can keep them off you while you deal with any capital ships.

"The Drakh use particle beams and kinetic missiles. Their shields are weaker than yours but their hulls are heavily armoured. If they can't fight or run, they'll self-destruct as close to an enemy ship as possible. If all else fails, they will try to ram.

"Good luck, everyone!"

The Enterprise dropped out of warp a little away from the fight. The Minbari ship was similar in configuration to the one they had already seen, but larger. It was attempting to run as best it could on impulse drive. The other ships -the Drakh - were dark, brutal-looking vessels.

"Two frigates and a destroyer, plus an indeterminate number of tactical ships." Worf reported. "It appears that the Minbari vessel could outrun the capital ships, if it were not for the smaller craft hindering it."

"Enterprise," the Majors voice came over comms, "deal with the destroyer first. It's the only one that could make a dent in your shields. I'll pull those fighters off the Minbari!" Then, with a crash of loud music, he was off!

"Green Day, American Idiot." Data murmured.

The Drakh destroyer had clearly identified the Enterprise as a threat and had turned to bring its main armament to bear. But the Federation ship was already running at flank speed, and the first shot missed. Worf made no such error, and a salvo of photon torpedoes reduced the destroyer to a burning hulk. Then the ship shook and the lights dimmed.

"Direct hit on the starboard side!" Riker announced. "Shields at ninety-five per cent, no damage!"

"One of the frigates." Worf stated. "Firing phasers!"

The Enterprises' dorsal phaser array lit up and the beams punched through the frigates' shield and bored into the hull.

"Direct hit to their warp core." Data reported. "Implosion in sixty seconds."

"Get us clear!" Picard barked.

"Aye, sir!" Hashak took them out and away at full impulse as the Drakh ship twisted in on itself and vanished into a miniature black hole which promptly collapsed. The Silurian ensign looped them back toward the battle, but there was no need. The Majors' SIDRAT, supported by the Minbari ships' point-defence railguns, had virtually wiped out the Drakh fighters and corvettes. As they watched, the remaining Drakh frigate swung off and went into warp.

"Sir, the Minbari are hailing us." Worf said.

"On screen." Picard requested.

The figure that appeared was that of a woman, with a pointed, attractive face. She was hairless, but a comb-like bony growth covered the back of her head. She wore robes in pastel shades, and spoke in a pleasant alto voice with a slight, lilting accent.

"Greetings, Federation starship." She said. "I am Satai Delenn of Mir, of the Minbari Confederation. May I know who I am addressing?"

"I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets starship USS Enterprise. Do you require any assistance, Satai Delenn?"

Delenn smiled and shook her head. "You have already helped us to a degree we will find difficult to repay, Captain! Thank you for your timely and valiant support.

"We were in fact seeking you, and it is important we speak. But we should do so face-to-face. Unfortunately, our shuttle bay was damaged in the battle and it will be some hours before I can come to your ship.

"Our Transporter technology would allow to bring you aboard at once, Satai." Picard offered.

She shook her head again. "Thank you for your offer, but Minbari beliefs do not permit us to make use of such technology. We will signal you when I am ready to join you. Delenn out."

"Captain," Data said, "the Major has returned to the ship. He is waiting in the Officers' Mess."

-XXXXX-

The Major was not actually waiting, but tucking into a large helping of food. "Hope you don't mind." He said. "Just collecting my pay!"

"There is no shortage of food, Major." Picard said. "As a guest aboard this ship you may, of course, help yourself to whatever you require at your convenience."

"Thanks." The Major replied. "I suppose I should have waited for debrief, but my nanotech runs off my metabolism, and when I go into enhanced mode, like in a battle, I burn off a ton of calories!

"So, what news on the Rialto? I can listen while I eat."

Picard summed up their part in the battle and his conversation with Delenn, by which time the Major had emptied his plate.

"How long is it likely to be before the Drakh return with reinforcements?" Picard asked.

"I doubt they will." The Major said. "That was just a standard raid. A carrier would have dropped off the fighters, then got clear - they keep them out of battles because they're slow and vulnerable. The carrier would've been the base for the raiding force and without most of its escort, it'll be heading back into Drakh space. Carriers don't do more than warp four, so that'll be days off. They know we'll be long gone before they can get back. The frigate will stay with the carrier to protect it."

"That makes sense." Picard allowed. "Now, how do we deal with the Minbari?"

"Oh for crying out loud!" The Major growled. "Don't StarFleet Captains get diplomatic training? Or are you still on the old 'We come in peace. Shoot to kill!' thing?" He made an impatient gesture. "Look, I'm a soldier, not a diplomat or a politician. All I know about diplomacy is that you'll get more with a kind word and a two-by-four than you will with just a kind word. I do the two-by-four, you do the kind words, all right?"

"I understand that diplomacy is not your field." Picard said. "But diplomacy and soldiering share at least one thing. Both benefit from reconnaissance and intelligence. I am asking if you have any background information on the Minbari which may be useful?"

"Now that's a sensible question!" The Major responded. "OK, three castes, Warriors, Workers and Religious. Workers covers everything from farm labourers to warp engineers and theoretical physicists. Warriors are divided into Army and Fleet, and are organised by clan - all military, even their scientists and engineers. Religious caste look after welfare, both spiritual and physical, as well as taking on scholarship and diplomatic roles.

"This Delenn is a Satai, which means she's a member of the Grey Council, the ruling body of the Confederation. Used to be that there were three Satai from each caste, but about ten years ago there was damn nearly a civil war, and the upshot was that the Council was reformed. Now there are two Religious, two Warrior and five Worker members. I suspect a certain Doctor of our acquaintance might have stuck his or her oar into that affair, but don't ask about it. The Minbari are touchy about the First Ones, for some reason

"The fact that they sent the Religious caste out to find you means that the Warrior caste are going to be pissed off about it. The Religious will want to talk, whereas the Warriors would rather shoot first and apologise later, if necessary. More caution than aggression, after a century of war with a race who won't negotiate, they tend to assume hostility. The fact that they sent a Satai means that they either know or suspect enough about the Federation to consider you important, or that there's a prophecy about you.

"Now, the Religious might be looking for fulfilment of a prophecy or not, but they will want to exchange knowledge about your societies, beliefs, medicine, politics and so on. The Warriors will want to do a threat assessment, to decide if you're a potential enemy or a worthy ally. The Workers will want to know what practical benefits the Minbari could or might gain from relations with you.

"Beyond that, I'm as much in the dark as you are, until we hear what Delenn has to say. Remember one thing; Minbari, especially the Religious caste, have deep psychological and social blocks when it comes to lying. You can believe anything Delenn or any other Minbari tells you, but watch out for the subjects they won't talk about, especially when they don't tell you why they won't talk about them.

"Now, I have a craving for something sweet, so excuse me while I go and see if your replicator can come up with a decent bread-and-butter pudding!"